“The Idea of a ‘Witch’ in Central India” by Shashank S. Sinha

 On account of their inability to conform to the ‘rational’, ‘objective’, and ‘scientific’ notions of history-writing, witchcraft and witch-hunting have remained marginalised in the mainstream academic research in India and elsewhere. Yet many regions/states in the Central Indian adivasi (lit. indigenous) heartland (and beyond) continue to report incidents of witch killing or witch hunting, and some have a long history. Six states—Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan—have enacted specific legislations to deal with this growing menace and two states—Maharashtra and Karnataka—have in place broader legislations concerning magic and superstition. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has also been reporting cases of witch killing (not witch-hunting) from around 12 (sometimes more) states. One can discern some common emergent patterns in the wider reportage of witch-hunts, across regions in India, in the recent decades. Sometimes, it’s also possible to identify some common historical trends, though this is limited by absence of substantive academic research across regions. Witchcraft and witch-hunting have neither featured adequately in research on tribes, nor on gender or violence—they have mostly gained visibility in anthropology in sections related to folklore, popular culture, religion and belief system. This lecture will take a broader long-term view of the idea of a witch (locally known as dayan, bishahi, tonhi)/ constructions of witchcraft and related incidents of witch-hunting by largely focusing on the states of Bihar and Jharkhand, the latter having the dubious distinction of reporting largest number of such cases. Contrary to popular perceptions, the adivasi world of spirits and witches was not a dead, insular domain, it never was. It intersected closely with the changes in socio-political milieu to acquire different meanings and forms over a period of time. The lecture will also delve into violence connected with witch-hunting—again an area which hasn’t received adequate attention in academic research—its production, manifestations, constituent elements and constituencies. From killing around the mid-19th century to fines, dispossession, banishment or killing in the early-20th century to fines, beating and occasional killing around mid-20th century, violence related to witch-hunts has undergone changes over a period of time. Development projects in the Ruhr of India — as the mineral-rich Chotanagpur /Jharkhand is known—has only exacerbated social tensions creating new avenues for witch-hunts. In more recent decades, sexual assaults of the accused—involving rape, defiling of their bodies, parading them naked, branding their sexual organs, etc.—have become conspicuously common in all affected states/regions. What makes such incidents even more grisly sometimes is the participation of the entire village and not just the tribe or community concerned, as seen earlier.

Abstract Excerpt from “The Svasthya-Rasa-Bodhini” CSP public lecture  on 23 July 2019, by Shashank S Sinha (Publishing Director, Routledge)

Disclaimer: The opinions endorsed by the speaker is solely his and not in any way endorsed by the organisers.